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Obama campaigning in Iowa last July 4th. His great success there aside, there are serious shortcomings in the Iowa caucus system. (AP)

Iowa Democrats need to modify their caucus system

COMMENTARY | June 07, 2008

The press has been a passive bystander despite serious, undemocratic flaws. This year was no exception. Says Gil Cranberg: "The press should quit being cheerleaders for the seemingly grassroots character of Iowa’s caucuses and report forthrightly about their significant deficiencies."

By Gilbert Cranberg

Iowans who love to bask in the political limelight every four years are breathing easier now that Barack Obama has won the Democratic delegate count. His pivotal victory in Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses makes it likely that he’ll be a potent Iowa booster in the looming battle to reshape the nominating calendar. Michigan Senator Carl Levin recently indicated what’s in store for Iowa when he declared, “No state should have the right to go first every campaign. No state.”

It would be a mistake, however, for party rule-makers to simply decide who goes first without examining what goes first. Iowa’s caucuses are seriously flawed. If Iowa is allowed to retain its traditional kickoff role, with all the undue campaigning and attention that accompanies it, Iowa should be required to modify its caucus system to make it conform to basic democratic norms. The press has a big stake in this issue, but for the most part it has been a passive bystander. It needs to weigh in with demands that the public’s need for reliable, factual information be given high priority.

Iowa Republicans disclose a straightforward count of how many Republican caucus-goers supported each GOP candidate. Democrats keep that kind of information hidden. Nor do Iowa Democrats reveal how many who vote in their caucuses were actually registered as Democrats prior to caucus night.  Non-party members can become instant Democrats for voting purposes at the caucuses, but even long-time registered Democrats are barred from expressing candidate preferences by the party’s insistence that “there will be no absentee or proxy voting at any precinct caucus for any reason.” That effectively disenfranchises tens of thousands of members of the armed forces, among the many others who cannot be physically present. Those who do manage to attend are denied a secret ballot.

Iowa is so single-mindedly determined to protect its early-voting status that last August it joined with three other early-voting states – New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – to coerce candidates to sign an unconscionable pledge to shun Florida and Michigan after the state legislatures in both states scheduled somewhat earlier primaries. By signing the pledge, the candidates vowed not to “purchase media” or engage in “campaign advocacy of any kind,” including “attending or hosting events of more than 200 people to promote one’s candidacy....” A Florida journalist told me how the pledge kept him from even interviewing candidates.

If a state government had imposed such a gag order, it would have been a gross violation of the First Amendment. The four state political parties could get away with it because they are private organizations. The candidates acquiesced, apparently to not antagonize the early-voting states. They should have balked and insisted on their rights of free speech – and the rights of the people of Florida and Michigan to receive campaign messages. Likewise, the press should have complained forcefully about the effort to shut down political speech.

No doubt primaries in Michigan and Florida would have siphoned attention from earlier contests. After all, Florida has more electoral votes than the four earliest states combined. But that was all the more reason not to put the kibosh on campaigning in a key state like Florida. It’s as though those who engineered the gag order lost sight of the fundamental purpose of nominating contests – to win elections – and viewed them, first and foremost, as marketing opportunities.

My colleague Herb Strentz and I reported weaknesses in the Iowa caucuses long before Obama got his big campaign boost in them. For example, click here for a piece by Strentz in August 2007 pointing out that while the press would report the spin as caucus results came in, actual vote tallies would never be known—and the press didn’t seem to care at all about that.

The upcoming debate about the nominating calendar isn’t just an intra-party issue. The press and public have major interests in it. The press should quit being cheerleaders for the seemingly grassroots character of Iowa’s caucuses and report forthrightly about their significant deficiencies. Above all, regardless of the order of state voting, the press should insist that the individual preferences of voters be fully tallied and reported.

Posted by Jim Hess
06/10/2008, 02:40 AM

Cranberg raises some good points for discussion, but I'm not sure all will come up with the same answers.

Democracy is a general principle that can be pursued in many ways.
Implicilty Cranberg is calling for a primary system. He doesn't regard caucuses as legitimate, in part because they don't give the press the kinds of breakdowns they'd like. However, it is important to remember that the caucus is only the first stage of a system that also includes very open county and state conventions. Can Cranberg supply any empirical data that caucus results misrepresent the preferences of Iowa Democrats?

The second objection is the first-in-the-nation aspect. Cranberg's argument is that 4 small states with roughly 3% of the nation's population were able to strongarm the other 46 states into going along with them. It seems implausible. Where is the reporting to back it up? Can it be that the national parties see advantages to letting small states, amenable to retail-level politics, go first? And maybe the parties already have particularly strong grassroots organizations in these particular states?

I don't know, but then I never had Cranberg's media ties that would let me investigate. If he has some answers, he might provide the links that would stimulate the investigative interest for which he calls.

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